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Test Your Idea in the Cloud for (almost) Free

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Not so long ago, testing an idea for a digital product was expensive. You would have to pay big money for designers, developers, hosting services, and other software tools. This was before the growth of Cloud Computing and a thriving startup ecosystem.

Today’s market is full of resources that can help you. You can think, test, and deploy your idea in a few clicks for free. Or for a few dollars a month and some good trial plan.

This doesn’t mean professional designers and developers are superfluous. They are very important indeed. But with the right set of tools, you can hire their services only when you are sure your idea can be viable.

Please note: the following list is far from complete. They are either well-known services or tools that I’ve used or tested. Feel free to post your own suggestions in the comments.

Idea definition

The first step of any business idea should be a plan. Who are your customers? How money comes in and goes out? You need to find answers to these and other questions before going on.

The Business Model Canvas is a free tool that allows you to describe and design your business idea. The system divides the idea into 9 building blocks such as Value Propositions, Customer Segments, Revenue Streams, and more.

Prototyping

With your idea defined, a very effective way to test it is an interactive prototype. The first prototype can be a set of black and white boxes, enough for showing the product behaviour to a group of test users.

Conceptly and Marvel are in-browser prototyping tools with a good free plan. On the pay-only side, you can try Balsamiq, Mockingbird and Atomic.

If you want more creative freedom, you can buy a copy of Sketch and draw your screens using one of the many UI Kits available online. You can then import all into InVision and add interaction.

Data sharing

At every stage, sharing information with both your customers and your team is one of the keys for a successful product. The most famous solutions are doubtless Dropbox, Box and Google Drive.

They all allow you to store and share files publicly or with restrictions, with a good set of features and integrations.

Organise

You’ve decided that your idea is viable. You need to organise the work to be done to have an MVP (Minimum Viable Product). This is usually the point when you would hire designers and coders.

On the free side, depending on your preferences, you can count on Trello or Asana. When the project grows in complexity — and hopefully makes money — you may stay there or move to something like Jira.

Code hosting and documentation

Code is at the heart of any cloud-based product, and you want it to stay safe and accessible to your team.

GitHub is free for public repositories and offers affordable paid plans. With BitBucket you can have a few private repos for free.

Good paid alternatives can be Beanstalk (they also have a free 1-repo plan) and CodeBase.

Most of them have some sort of documentation tool, but you can choose to use Read the Docs.

Deployment tools

There’s really a huge choice of deployment tools out there. So far I’ve worked with these three guys.

TravisCI is free for open source projects and integrates seamlessly with GitHub. There is also a paid version for private and enterprise projects.

CodeShip is another great alternative. It comes with basic and pro options and a free basic plan.

I’ve also used DeployHQ for a few projects, and I really like how they manage (s)FTP deploys and post-deploy tasks.

Hosting and infrastructure

Where will your product live? If you’re testing your MVP or don’t want to mess with servers and infrastructure provisioning, you can use a PaaS (Platform as a Service) like Heroku or Zeit.

You can start free and add power later. Jean-Paul Delimat wrote a great article on this topic: How your startup can leverage production-grade infrastructure for less than $200/month.

Other — and sometimes more complex — alternatives are Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud.

Amazon offers a low-cost package for startups called AWS Activate. It includes credits for infrastructure, support, training, and more.

Selling tools

If your idea includes selling digital products such as PDF reports, ebooks, audio or videos, Gumroad and SendOwl are your guys. You can start for as low as $9 per month and access a whole bunch of useful features and integrations.

If you “just” need a payment platform and can do some coding, there’s always Stripe.

Customer support

Your idea may be up and running, but nobody is perfect. Users will discover bugs or will have questions and requests for features.

The choice on the free side is between Groove, Freshdesk and Zendesk.

Email and social marketing

In order to “spread the virus” for your service or product, you need to reach your target audience on their favourite channels, usually email or social platforms.

MailChimp and CampaignMonitor are two of the most complete and easy to use email solutions out there, although they’re not the only ones.

MailChimp comes with a free starter plan for your first 2000 subscribers. Campaign Monitor doesn’t have a free plan, but it has a pay-per-campaign system so that you only pay when you send.

As for the social channels, you can rely on HootSuite or Buffer. With their free plans, you can schedule and post your content on 3 to 5 social platforms, and have basic statistics and other useful features.

Conclusion

This is just a small part of what the cloud has to offer, there’s a ton more. Also, most of those services are able to communicate with each other, and with utility tools such as Zapier and IFTTT (If This Then That).

There are no excuses for keeping your idea under your desk. Start planning now!